Most of us are sick and tired of working our gardens at just about the time we should get a second wind and start our fall gardens. Many veggies, particularly root crops and leafy greens will make great eating into the winter. There is nothing more satisfying than stepping out into the brisk morning air to harvest fresh food from your fall garden. There are a couple of things to do first.
Each region has an ideal planting time for fall crops. First, they need enough growing time (with temperature and sunlight) to get to nearly mature. Just as you refer to a planning chart for the last frost in spring, you should refer to a chart that gives the average first frost dates in the fall. Check those dates on Daves Garden look up by zip codes.
Then check the seed packet and determine how many “days to maturity.” Do the calendar math. Will that variety be ready to eat before the frost date? If you have a short window between too hot to grow (cool weather crops like daytime temperatures in the 70’s to low 80’s), you may need to start these seedlings in partially shaded trays. Adding a canopy of shade cloth over a bed will allow you to plant them where they will grow. Make sure the beds remain evenly moist so seeds will sprout.
Another option is to plant small seedlings at the base of taller summer crops that may still be bearing. The seedlings benefit from the shade in hotter weather. Cut out the summer plants once the temperatures start to fall. There is no need to till the bed, just use a trowel and loosen the soil where you place the seedlings to a depth of 4 or 5 inches. You can spread a layer of compost on top of the soil to give them a little boost.
Green leafy vegetables and many root crops taste better in the fall and don’t have the tendency to “bolt” (go to bloom) in the fall like they do in the spring as the daytime temperatures rise. Some plants in southern states will continue to grow most of the winter. When the temperatures get below freezing, most growth will stop. Crops can be harvested until temperatures dip into the teens. Then you must protect them or they will die.
What greens do you like? They are the ones to plant. Here are some suggestions:
1. Lettuce – there are many varieties of leaf lettuce that will grow large enough to pick leaves from in about 45-60 days. So plant them 4-8 weeks before your first estimated frost. Lettuce can grow through the winter in a cold frame or row cover.
2. Beets – are either loved or not by most folks. Their leaves can be trimmed all fall to add color and variety to salads. If they’re protected during the coldest times, they’ll grow all winter and make great tasting spring beet roots. They are nutritious and can be ready for picking in 2-3 weeks.
3. Field cress – also known as creasy salad, is edible either raw in salads or steamed. This plant grows wild across the Southeastern United States. Seeds are available but this is one you may want to “forage” for. Look in fields with good soil.
4. Kale – is a member of the cabbage family that is cold hardy. Leaves can be picked and eaten as you thin the bed for an extra shot of vitamins and minerals. Soak these seeds overnight before planting and then place them in full sunlight areas. They can tolerate freezing weather.
5. Radishes – are fast growing and provide a tangy crisp flavor as a green and if you can be patient for the root to form. They mature in four to six weeks.
6. Turnips – have one of the greatest germination rates of any green I’ve planted. Plus you can just toss them into a scratched up bed and walk away. The greens are ready for picking in a few weeks. They will grow til the first hard freeze or longer if protected.
7. Arugula – another peppery flavored green ready in three to four weeks after planting. High in vitamins, this plant offers many health benefits.
8. Broccoli – prefers temperatures below 70º F. You can eat these greens in salads as you thin the bed. You may need to cover these with cages if your have ravenous squirrels like we do.
9. Swiss Chard – a member of the beet family, they are mild flavored and can be eaten raw or cooked. If you protect them in a covered house, they will grow all winter.
10. Onions – grown from sets can provide green tops all winter.They can also be grown in your window.
What grows in your fall garden? We would love to get your ideas.
PS. Plant garlic in the fall for spring harvest. They will grow a good root base and then go dormant over the winter.
Billie Nicholson, Editor
September 2016, updated August 2018